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One of the great narratives of bad karma, hell, of cinema
We're beating a dead horse if we begin to lament another lost treasure, another overlooked Japanese director who's yet to receive his dues. Uchida will have to queue up in a humongous line. The film canon, as we know it, as it's being taught to college kids in film classes, is written from a Western perspective and is so incomplete as to be near useless. It's safe to say we're living in the Dark Ages of cinema, in the negative time of ignorance, and that 100 years from now Straits of Hunger will feature prominently in lists of the epochal narrative films of the previous century. We may choose to keep honoring the Colombuses and pretend we invented paper or gunpowder, but film history will invariably reveal the pioneers.
But that's a matter of concern for the historian, the librarian of cinema who will undertake the thankless task of restoring in the ledgers some measure of order. What do we get from the discovery of such a film now, as mortals with a remote? On one hand it's the perfect illustration of a narrative cinema en route to modernism, from Kurosawa to Imamura, how it's concurrent with New Wave expression, aware of it but not ready for it. The illustration is transparent when the image turns negative in crucial scenes, it feels like we're standing on a brink of expression (one of many in this film).
This is mere technicality though, dry academic discourse. If we're so inclined, we can find measures of this in Uchida's previous films. The man was of Mizoguchi's generation but he had an eye for abstraction. We can play back to back the finale of Killing in Yoshiwara and Sword of Doom and see what we get, how the point of view shifts to within, how the external turmoil becomes a lucid image of a state of mind.
What really matters to me here though is, as Donald Richie describes it, the "working out of karma". It's become a tortured term over the years but we need to understand what karma is not. It's not fate, though it speaks of fatalism. It doesn't emanate from above, we are the agents. Translated from sanskrit (or pali) it means "action". Our past actions have brought us here, our present actions determine our future. Good or bad, karma sets in motion the cycle of suffering that binds all beings to this earthly prison.
This is a spiritual film then, but how does it pertain to some primal principle of the soul? The story of bad karma is common in Japanese lore, a man finds himself haunted by guilt demons of the mind for the misdeeds of the past. Usually in this type of film we're brought to the brink of an abyss, from there we can gaze below to the existential void. Most films daren't go further (that is, if we accept there is somewhere to go from there) but it's enough for me to experience this, it's a first awareness. Our reward is that view.
Straits of Hunger presents a complexity that opens up a yawning chasm when we come to stand at that brink.
Our man is unaware of wrongdoing until it's too late. Because no one would believe his story of how he didn't murder anyone to get ahold of so much money, he keeps it. The dawn of his bad karma comes from a punishing moral conundrum, from circumstances outside his control. Our protagonist gets to choose, a life in prison or a life of guilt. I like that we're watching the hapless fallguy dance to the cosmic tune of an indifferent god (more precisely, no god), but we should keep in mind this is not a noir text.
What's of essence here, is the acceptance of suffering. Our protagonist needs to atone for something he didn't want to be born into, a murderous scheme with two ex-convicts of which he was unaware. As we all do. Suffering then, like the first cry of the newborn, is a natural, inate, response to existence. Brilliant! I love how Uchida makes cinema out of that bad karma.
In a similar text, the Daibosatsu Toge, famously adapted by Kihachi Okamoto in '66 and Uchida himself in '71, the setting of the visitation is, of course, The Great Boddhisatva Pass (that is, from where the boddhisatvas pass or cross into this world, enlightened beings who choose to remain in the cycle of life and suffering to assist others in their path). Here it's a furious storm, a cataclysm.
For the first apparition of guilt, Uchida summons into the stage the portents of doom, rain and lightnings rolling down Mt. Fear, and a prostitute, the harbringer almost ceremonially covered in a blanket, mockingly bellows "there's no path out of hell". In a later scene he repeats the setup, to make a connection, but this time there is murder. What exists in the mind, will find its way out.
Inbetween, Uchida gives us one of the most vivid chronicles of life in postwar Japan to this day. The poverty and moral desperation of life in the slums and the black market, the Yankee resentment and political upheaval, but also a kind of hopeful anticipation for change. The contrast is subtle, and in the next segment we see our raggedy protagonist is now a successful businessman.
Two instances in the film fascinate me a lot, when the cop recites the sutra for the dead. The first time is nondescript, but when we hear it again in the finale we know. It foreshadows. And more, the cop knows the sutras better than a monk (as a monk tells him), the teachings, but he's not liberated. Ultimately no one is in the film, and the cycle of suffering goes on. This is one of the great Buddhist films for me.
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